In 2011, Felisa Smith, Distinguished Professor of Biology at The University of New Mexico, was discussing science communications with then-graduate student Mason Ryan.
“It was after another of those episodes where Congress hears testimony on some big issue, like climate change, and instead of hearing from scientists, actors testify. It might have been Kevin Bacon testifying about climate change. We realized that part of the problem is that scientists are never taught how to communicate, nor why it is important. So, we thought perhaps we ought to change that,” Smith explained.
Ryan now works for the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), focusing on garter snake species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act with the goal of their recovery to healthy populations in Arizona and New Mexico.
“I've aways had an interest in sci comm. Science literacy is so valuable to people’s lives but little emphasis is made to communicate complex topics with clear, concise language for those with a non-science background. Due to our training, we use technical jargon and terms as though they're in common usage, which can alienate more than communicate. I'm a first-generation college student and had this realization when speaking to my family about what I was doing in grad school. They feigned interest and smiles, but then my mom asked me to re-explain everything in English. Doh!” Ryan said.
Soon after their discussion, the UNM BioBLOG... tales from the field and lab, inspired by nature was started, and 12 years later the student-run communiqué is still going strong. The blog recently reached its 390,000th view.
“BioBLOG is about writing and communicating science. We aim to make the cool stuff we do in Biology accessible to a broader audience and in the process become better ambassadors of science. Some of our blogs are funny, some are serious, and the topics are vast. Some are exceptionally well-written and some not so much. But they are in the student’s voices. The students are endlessly creative and new ideas for posts are always showing up,” Smith noted.
Not every scientist or ecologist with amazing, inspiring, or funny stories behind the scenes in science end up in National Geographic but this blog gives them the opportunity to tell the tale, Ryan said, adding that that it’s important that students at all levels, as well as faculty, learn how to relate their work to the public. The blog gives them the opportunity, constructive feedback, and confidence.
Blogs take the form of an essay on a subject of interest, a succinct summary of exciting new research findings, or a personal experience of research and discovery. In addition, students are expected to play an active role in discussion and peer review of other contributions.
Smith set a goal of 30-40 posts a year and then set up a one-credit class with the requirement that each participant submit at least one blog during the semester.
“There has been a series of graduate students who have really stepped up and helped co-teach and run the blog. I’ve often had them listed as co-instructors. First, Mason Ryan, then students like Meghan Balk, Jenna McCollough, Carson Hedberg, and Zoe Rossman, all of whom did a bang-up job. When I was on sabbatical, one or more of them took over the class and ran it,” Smith recalled.
The most recent entry Biology by Blood was written by Alexandra Apgar, a graduate student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Medical staff often comment on her surname, the same as that of Dr. Virginia Apgar, who developed the Apgar Scoring System given to newborn babies to assess their condition immediately after birth. In her blog, Apgar is Dr. Virginia Apgar’s great-great-great-great-niece.
She chronicles not only Apgar’s notable medical career but also observes that her great-great-great-great aunt was a talented violinist. If all goes according to plan, the UNM student hopes she too will become Apgar someday but added that she prefers studying dinosaurs to human babies.
In other recent posts:
Natalia Chavez, a senior at UNM finishing her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, explains her fascination with space exploration and Astrobiology in A stellar opportunity.
Fourth-year UNM senior Saul Ortiz Tena is currently studying Biology and Spanish. In Crispy trees and scraped knees: a quick detour from undergrad monotony, he relates his work in the field with the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program inspecting a burn site for the City of Albuquerque.
Kaleigh Brown is a biology undergrad at UNM with an interest in pediatric medicine. In The Age of Social Media, Brown explores issues with social media and reports her findings after cutting back on social media for a month with her younger sister.
“The lessons and experiences from the BioBLOG classes I helped teach are still with me,” Ryan said. “I often give public presentations or write short natural history pieces on Arizona amphibians and reptiles for the AZGFD Wildlife Views magazine. I always catch myself asking 'Is this too technical?" or ‘Will my mom have to Google a term or word to understand this?’ when preparing a sci comm piece or talk.”
Smith has made her own contributions to the blog. In Visions in the mist, she recalls a perfect moment in the field.
“And, poised in the midst of this Ancel [sic] Adams-like setting was a bobcat. Correction, three bobcats. A mother and her two small cubs stood in the middle of the dirt track that followed along the canyon bottom. It was one of those magical moments in time where everything stops. When you forget even to breathe. Despite the many years that have elapsed since this distant fall morning, I still remember vividly how the early morning light back-illuminated their thick fur. The mist, that hung around them and appeared to swirl around their legs. A twitching ear. The large curious eyes of the cubs. And, how quiet it was. No traffic. No planes. No sound except the far-off cacophony of songbirds welcoming in the dawn.
"Our silent contemplation of each other didn’t last very long. Turning, the mother sprang away and bounded gracefully along the canyon, followed closely and a bit more awkwardly by her two cubs. I sat and watched them until they were gone from view. And, then I drove on… As the poet Robert Frost said ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh. Somewhere ages and ages hence.’ I find that I don’t mind getting up early in the morning anymore. After all, who knows what lurks in the early morning mist?”